The Artist on Sunday won five Academy Awards, including best picture, becoming the first silent film to win Hollywood's highest honours since the original Oscar ceremony 83 years ago.

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In the black-and-white comic melodrama category, the best actor award went to Jean Dujardin and the best director to Michel Hazanavicius.

In a night of few surprises, the other top Oscars went to Meryl Streep for best actress for the film The Iron Lady, Octavia Spencer as supporting actress for The Help and Christopher Plummer as supporting actor for Beginners.

The Artist is the first silent winner since the World War I saga Wings, which was named outstanding picture at the first Oscars in 1929.

“I am the happiest director in the world,” Hazanavicius said, thanking the cast, crew and canine co-star Uggie. “I also want to thank the financier, the crazy person who put money in the movie.”

The other wins for The Artist were for musical score and art direction.

Martin Scorsese's Paris adventure Hugo also won five Oscars, all in technical categories.

Streep's win was her first Oscar in 29 years, since she won best actress for Sophie's Choice. She had lost 12 times in a row since then. Streep also has a supporting-actress Oscar for 1979's Kramer vs. Kramer.

“When they called my name, I had this feeling I could hear half of America go, ‘Oh, no, why her again?' But whatever,” Streep said, laughing.

“I really understand I'll never be up here again. I really want to thank all my colleagues, my friends. I look out here and I see my life before my eyes, my old friends, my new friends. Really, this is such a great honour, but the thing that counts the most with me is the friendship and the love and the sheer joy we've shared making movies together,” said Streep, the record-holder with 17 acting nominations.

Streep is only the fifth performer to receive three Oscars, including Jack Nicholson, Ingrid Bergman and Walter Brennan, who won three, while Katharine Hepburn won four.

It was a night that went as expected, with front-runners claiming key prizes. Streep's triumph provided a bit of drama, since she had been in a two-woman race with Viola Davis for The Help.

The biggest surprise may have been the length of the show, which clocked in at about three hours and 10 minutes, brisk for a ceremony that has run well over four hours some years.

The 82-year-old Plummer became the oldest acting winner ever for his role as an elderly widower who comes out as gay in Beginners. “You're only two years older than me, darling,” Plummer said, addressing his Oscar statue. “Where have you been all my life? I have a confession to make. When I first emerged from my mother's womb, I was already rehearsing my Oscar speech.”

The previous oldest winner was best-actress recipient Jessica Tandy for Driving Miss Daisy. She won at the age of 80.

Completing an awards-season blitz that took her from Hollywood bit player to star, Spencer won for her role in The Help as a headstrong black maid whose wilful ways continually land her in trouble with white employers in 1960s Mississippi.

Dujardin became the first Frenchman to win an acting Oscar. French actresses have won before, including Marion Cotillard and Juliette Binoche.

“Oh, thank you. Oui. I love your country!” said Dujardin, who plays George Valentin, a silent-film superstar fallen on hard times as the sound era takes over. If George Valentin could speak, Dujardin said, “he'd say... Wow! Merci beaucoup! Genial! Formidable!”

Claiming Hollywood's top-filmmaking honour completes Hazanavicius' sudden rise from popular movie-maker back home in France to internationally celebrated director. Hazanavicius had come in as the favourite after winning at the Directors Guild of America Awards, whose recipient almost always goes on to claim the Oscar.

The five Oscars for Hugo, which led contenders with 11 nominations, included cinematography, art direction and visual effects.

Another beloved big-screen bunch, The Muppets, finally got their due at the Oscars. The Muppets earned the best-song award for “Man or Muppet,” the sweet comic duet sung by Jason Segel and his Muppet brother in the film, the first big-screen adventure in 12 years for Kermit the frog and company.

Filmmaker Alexander Payne picked up his second writing Oscar, sharing the adapted-screenplay prize for the Hawaiian family drama The Descendants with co-writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. Payne, who also directed The Descendants, previously won the same award for Sideways.

Payne said he brought along his mother from Omaha, Neb., to the Oscars, and that she had demanded a shout-out if he made it onstage.

“She made me promise that if I ever won another Oscar I had to dedicate it to her just like Javier Bardem did with his Oscar. So mom, this one's for you. Thank you for letting me skip nursery school so we could go to the movies.”

Woody Allen earned his first Oscar in 25 years, winning for original screenplay for the romantic fantasy Midnight in Paris, his biggest hit in decades. It's the fourth Oscar for Allen, who won for directing and screenplay on his 1977 best-picture winner Annie Hall and for screenplay on 1986's Hannah and Her Sisters.

Allen also is the record-holder for 15 writing nominations, and his three writing Oscars ties the record shared by Charles Brackett, Paddy Chayefsky, Francis Ford Coppola and Billy Wilder.

No fan of awards shows, Allen predictably skipped Sunday's ceremony, where he also was up for best director.

Rango, with Johnny Depp providing the voice of a desert lizard that becomes a hero to a parched Western town, won for best animated feature.

Crystal got the show off to a lively start with a star-laden montage in which he hangs out with Justin Bieber and gets a nice wet kiss from George Clooney.

Crystal's return as host seemed appropriate on a night that had Hollywood looking back fondly on more than a century of cinema history.

The top two nominees Hugo and The Artist are both love songs to early cinema.